Air pollution in Asia and the solutions clearing the haze

How Will Asia Stop Severe Air Pollution while Development Rages on? (part 2)

30 August 2019

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Thailand: solutions built for scale

Other rural communities throughout Asia have come together in support of solutions for local air pollution for a reason that needs no explanation — financial gain.

In the mountains of Chiang Mai, a non-profit called Warm Heart, founded by Dr. Michael Shafer and his wife, Evelind Schecter, is helping farming communities improve their air by teaching them to make biochar, a multipurpose charcoal-like substance that can be used to enrich depleted soil, as smokeless cooking fuel, or as an industrial energy supply, and incentivising results with cash.

Each spring, annual crop burning in northern Thailand fills the mountain air with thick smoke that diminishes overall health, life expectancy, and tourism in the region. This year, the air in Chiang Mai was the most polluted in the world during a forest fire — a common byproduct of crop burning. After the corn harvest, able-bodied members of the community head south in droves for the offseason to find more profitable work, leaving farmers with more work than they can manage. Unsurprisingly, the often-older farmers prefer burning the corn stubble that fills their fields to gathering the sharp stocks in the blazing sun.

Warm Heart has put a voluntary co-op system in place that allows farmers to opt into their biochar program. Shafer and his team teach the farmers to collect the stubble from their fields and turn it into biochar.

Shafer doesn’t try to change people’s minds for the sake of climate change or future generations; instead he focuses on the practical benefits that will make a noticeable immediate difference in farming communities.

“Our aim is to make not burning more profitable than burning” says Shafer. “Specifically, we want to make biocharring more profitable than burning. So instead of lecturing folks, we told them if they did this, we would pay them. They made 15,000 bags of biochar for us.”

A self-proclaimed realist, Shafer believes that climate change and air pollution are distant concerns for farmers operating at subsistence levels. By creating a prototype biochar co-op in Mae Chaem, he and Warm Heart hope to grow their model by imitation, rather than intervention.

“The biochar social enterprise model is designed for replication” he says. “It is small and cheap and flexible. Any village anywhere in the developing world ought to be able to bend it to fit.”

At Scale: China’s ambitious, authoritarian approach

In China, solutions like biochar have the advantage of government financing, allowing for faster advancement at a larger scale. However, the adjoined radical regulations typical to Chinese governmental policy sometimes precede on-the-ground alternatives for the individuals involved.

During recent winters, freezing villagers in northern provinces made headlines as the government rescinded its coal ban in areas where demand for gas far outweighed supply.

Sustainable development expert and author of the book “China’s Environmental Challenges” Judith Shapiro calls China’s fixation on targets “amenable to distortion.”

While the government’s crackdown campaigns are effective in a sense, Shapiro says “there is a strong tendency to shift the environmental harm to more vulnerable populations in rural areas, western China, and even overseas, rather than dealing with the problems at their root.” So while the air improves in wealthier eastern cities like Beijing and Shanghai, rural populations hundreds of kilometres west continue to feel the effects of “manufacturing shortcuts and prolonged use of toxic materials meant to be obsolete.”

In a bid to increase accountability, China’s central government encourages people to report illegal polluters to authorities. Professor Yuan Xu, leader of the Environmental Policy and Governance Programme at The Chinese University of Hong Kong, says these reports are so numerous that local authorities Xu works with in eastern China claim to spend more than 60 percent of their time looking into them.

Critics of the system, including Xu, doubt whether this is ultimately a worthwhile use of resources: “For example, with coal power stations, a lot of people think they have identified a pollutant when in fact it is water vapour. They [local Environmental Protection Department] have limited resources, and spending them on inspections that are not accurate is a waste of resources.”

Xu has higher hopes for holistic approaches that make use of technology like satellite imaging, which is already being used to detect crop burning.

“We are looking at how to use technology to reform the current system,” he says. “We do see that the Chinese government is actively seeking to use satellite data and social media, censors, and other ways of collecting data to catch illegal polluters and local government leaders who do not do their work.”

Regional Solutions in the Hindu Kush Himalayas

Even simple solutions that meet their target often take years to put in place. In India, where the government mandated a conversion from older brick kilns to newer, more efficient zig zag kilns by July 2018, a report by the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) showed that only one-third of kilns surveyed in northern India had been converted by the required date.

A switch to zig zag kilns could reduce emissions from brick production by up to 70 percent, according to the report, a significant reduction for one of India’s most polluting industries. However, the CSE report states that only around 20 percent of the kilns converted in Delhi exemplify ‘good conversion.’

The International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD), an intergovernmental organisation focused on preserving ecosystems in the Hindu Kush Himalayas, has been successfully implementing brick kiln conversion strategies in Nepal since 2015. In the wake of the devastating 2015 Gorkha earthquake, ICIMOD’s senior atmospheric scientist and program manager, Arnico Panday, saw opportunity in the rubble of the old kilns.

“We had a limited time window to gather together engineers, brick kiln owners, government regulators, and architects to have a consultation meeting to design a more efficient kiln, or rebuild the kilns in a more efficient way and to improve installation and combustion efficiency,” Panday explains.

They decided on a version of the zig zag kiln that would reduce coal usage by 30 percent, consequently lowering CO2 emissions and input costs for kiln owners, and reduce black carbon and PM2.5 emissions by approximately two-thirds.

“The initial kiln owners who worked with us in Kathmandu got really excited about this and they really promoted it among their friends and colleagues” says Panday, “so it didn’t take long before all 100 kilns in the Kathmandu Valley were converted.”

ICIMOD published a design manual to teach kiln owners to rebuild their broken kilns to require less coal, produce less pollution and produce a higher fraction of good bricks. The organisation continues to work with kiln owners throughout Nepal, as well as Pakistan and India, in hopes of upgrading all kilns in the Hindu Kush region with more efficient designs.

What Works, and Why?

While China’s approach may be imperfect, it possesses ambition that other Asian governments often fail to match, whether out of a lack of urgency, or disorganisation that leads to unaddressed non-compliance and unmet goals, or a sense of powerlessness.

The UN commends the improvements made in Beijing and Shanghai. Fabian, of the UN Air Quality and Mobility Unit Asia-Pacific, says he hopes that reports like the UN documentation of the years-long experiences of Beijing and Shenzhen, cities that are successfully reducing heavy levels of air pollution, will circulate as a sort of blueprint for other Asian cities that are experiencing, or will experience, high levels of pollution.

“The experience is there, the technology is there,” he says. “The bottom line is that governments need to act and the private sector needs to act.”

Sweeping shutdowns of coal-fired power plants and robust investment in electric vehicles are rapidly altering China’s air for the better, but analysts like Xu and Shapiro say there is a serious long-term need for a consistent set of practices that takes the nuances of specific industries and demographics into account, rather than enforcing a punitive, one-size-fits-all approach.

Practical solutions designed by organisations like ICIMOD, CERE and Warm Heart do not depend on government controls or threats again non-compliers, nor do they put the burden on those working to hold onto a modest standard of living the only way they know how. Their solutions offer an alternative that is a win-win for those directly involved and the environment.

Many cities and governments in Asia could likely learn from the UN reports on Beijing’s government-led 20-year clean up, but there is also much to learn from smaller actors like the communities and individuals who have fought with open ears and warm hearts for clean air and a brighter future.

Article by Viola Gaskell.
Editing by Mike Tatarski and Anrike Visser.
Illustrations by Imad Gebrayel.

Update 19 September 2019: The Hindu Kush region was clarified by adding ‘Himalayas’ to the subheading.

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